Brown University

Standing, Kneeling, and Absence: Is Democracy Backsliding? by: Zach Witkin @ Brown University

Following the election of Donald Trump, many of those who oppose him were, and still are, concerned about the future of democracy. The populist minded leader uses, and keeps using, his platform as a bully pulpit for nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-black rhetoric, isolationist, and xenophobic rhetoric. His stance in this ongoing kerfuffle with the NFL reflects his position – one of attempted divisiveness and dominance. How worried should we be about the erosion of democracy following Donald Trump’s twitter escapade and the ensuing backlash against him?

According to Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg’s work, How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy, three tenants crucial to the institution of democracy include: “competitive election; rights of political speech and association; and the administrative and adjudicative rule of law.” For democracy to ‘backslide,’ those three elements must erode simultaneously (Huq and Ginzburg, 1). If we work with their criteria for democratic backsliding in mind, I would say the US citizenry should not be worried.

Last weekend’s series of tweets by Donald Trump regarding players who knelt during the National Anthem at the start of football games and the subsequent resistance on the part of all levels of NFL franchises, is a prime example of why we should not be worried. In Trump’s view, kneeling during a National Anthem performance disrespects the military and veterans; he tweeted, “Courageous Patriots have fought and died for our great American Flag — we MUST honor and respect it! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” While many players in opposition to Trump’s comments kneel, or display another form of protest because they believe it symbolizes resistance against racial inequality and police brutality targeting people of color, especially predominately black communities.

Examining the recent, and ongoing, push back among NFL teams against Trump, under Huq and Ginzburg’s framework of democratic backsliding, this contestation is an example of civil society’s ability to question and resist a statement from an authoritative body. Trump tried to assert his authority by tweeting that a player should be fired for kneeling (Trump tweet, 9/23). In doing so, Trump used his position of power and influence in an attempt to intimidate players and discourage them from speaking out. He portrayed his position as the only correct interpretation of the meaning of this resistance. While this could have had the power to quell and negatively impact our rights of free speech, association and expression, the solidarity displayed throughout all levels of the NFL indicates that, in this instance, the resistance movement overpowered Trump’s message. Even in this weekend’s NFL games around the country (and in London), players continued to kneel, stand interlocking their arms, or make the black power salute – showing solidarity as one unified body. Because rights of association and expression did not erode in that instance of resistance in the NFL, according to Huq and Ginzburg’s work, democracy did not backslide, as all three elements would need to erode simultaneously.

While Huq and Ginzburg presented a straight forward framework to determine whether or not democracy was backsliding, it is naïve to say that our democracy is vibrant or flourishing; oppressions based on socioeconomic, racial, religious, immigrant, and sexual identities are still omnipresent throughout every facet of our society. While in this particular instance, NFL players, coaches and owners were able to stand together against Trump and a higher office, we must consider that these people are some of the wealthiest, most socially influential individuals in the US. Robert Kraft, the billionaire owner of the NE Patriots, stood up against his friend, Donald Trump; Rex Ryan and Tom Brady, both of whom voted for Trump, did as well. Even though all corners of the NFL came together on this issue, underneath the surface, Trump’s language differed when addressing a ‘peer’ such as Robert Kraft, who is a wealthy friend of Trump’s, versus black football players who knelt during the National Anthem. In an interview with CNN, Trump understood and accepted Kraft’s remarks in opposition of him. Trump said that they were still friends, and thanked Kraft for the Super Bowl ring he received only a month ago. Meanwhile, Trump used vulgar language against kneeling players, primarily African-Americans, calling them “sons of bitches.” While the actions of Kraft and NFL players were in support of each other, there appears to be transactionary costs to maintaining Trump’s loyalty and friendship, as well as a racially charged sentiment behind his comments. These attitudes are racially charged and/or linked. Nevertheless, given that the NFL operates in the private sphere and individuals associated with the league possess immense amounts of wealth and fame, there are few repercussions because their status and position cushion and insulate them from harm.

When thinking about this instance of politicization of the private sphere and Trump’s attack on the NFL’s first amendment rights, we must consider the position of people of color and other minority communities, not associated with the NFL, who are targeted by authority and stand up to it as well. In a similar situation, is there a greater chance that they will experience negative repercussions in response to their actions? I feel that that would be the case. As Gianpaulo Pons of Boston University wrote, this is not the first time Trump has exercised his own right to free speech. Thinking of the violence in Charlottesville, the president ‘condemned’ violence ‘on both sides.’ Yet, no one involved in the counter protest against the ‘alt-right, neo-Nazi groups terrorized the other side by running down protestors with a car. Trump’s “both sides are to blame” argument perpetuates the false narrative that black communities are inherently violent, and that even when historically oppressed communities speak out against their oppressor, they shall be punished, blamed, shamed and silenced.

Even if democracy is not in a state of backsliding, it is certainly not strengthening. In order for our democracy to become stronger, we must break the narrative that prioritizes white, male, and wealthy lives and identities before people of color, women, the LGBTQ+ community and immigrants.

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